Last week, The Occidental Weekly published an article titled “Professor Complacency Perpetuates Racism on Campus,” which described an exchange between an Occidental student, a Diplomacy and World Affairs professor and a guest lecturer. The story generated an unprecedented number of Letters to the Editor, including responses from the Occidental Professor, Jane Jacquette, and the guest lecturer, Ann Louise Bardach.
The letters can be found below. The details of this story are under ongoing investigation, which will be covered by The Occidental Weekly in the upcoming weeks.
To the Editor:
We write concerning the unfortunate incident discussed in Hanan Mohamed’s guest opinion column (March 25) and Ann Louise Bardach’s letter to the editor appearing in this edition of the Occidental Weekly.
Ms. Mohamed’s piece describes an on-campus encounter involving Ms. Bardach that she found to be racist, offensive and hostile. Ms. Bardach strongly disagrees with Ms. Mohamed’s characterization of the incident.
Cultural insensitivity has no place on the Occidental campus. We thank Ms. Mohamed for reporting this incident to the College. Although we cannot prevent such incidents from occurring, it is our job to investigate complaints and take appropriate action. We are doing just that. California and federal privacy laws prevent the College from discussing the results of its investigations (except in very limited circumstances not applicable here). Therefore, please do not interpret our silence as indifference or inaction.
John Swift, Associate Dean and Professor of English
Jorge Gonzalez, Dean of the College
To the Editor,
On Thursday evening, March 19th, I received a threatening, name-calling email from a woman in Chicago, saying she is the sister of an Occidental College student named Hanan Mohomed. If the intent of the sender was to terrify my family and myself, the effect was achieved. On the advice of legal counsel, I turned the email over to law enforcement.
As threats were involved – and thus may develop further––I will limit my comments here to the indisputable facts that occurred.
However, until that moment, I was unaware that anything was seriously amiss about a lovely day I had spent at Oxy to give a speech on U.S.-Cuba relations.
Last week, an untrue and slanderous account of an encounter with myself and Professor Jane Jaquette was published in the Occidental Weekly, along with a similarly inaccurate Facebook posting by Ms. Mohomed.
My account and memory is honed by 35 years of reporting. Moreover, Professor Jaquette was present throughout.
On March 19, I sought to make a friendly contact with a student in an Oxy restroom as she approached the sink. I said, “Hi, how are you?” I have always reached out to students wherever I teach or speak.
This particular student seemed somewhat sullen, so I sought to engage her a moment further and asked “Where are you from?” Throughout this brief exchange, I was friendly and smiling––indeed warm-hearted.
At no time, did I refer to the student as “exotic” or make any such suggestion.
At no time, did I ever make the ludicrous statement that I thought she was “from the Boko Haram” or any comment remotely suggestive of such. More to the point, it is context and intention that matter as much as our words. If I am guilty of something, it would have been an excess of friendliness and some social awkwardness. When the student said she was offended that I asked where she was from, I thought, well, we are both speaking while washing our hands at the same time––and perhaps the running water might have blurred what she thought she heard. I promptly clarified what I had said and offered an apology for any unintended offense. I was struck, however, by this student’s refusal to concede that she had misheard. She repeatedly said she was offended and insisted she heard something that was never said. Nor was she interested in any form of apology––which I offered (quite emotionally) three times for any unintended offense, regardless of what I had said. Professor Jaquette did not intervene to protect the student as there was NOTHING to protect her against. We went on to my lecture, believing that this was the end of a misunderstanding.
But Ms. Mohomed left the restroom, and evidently decided to launch a scorched earth campaign of vengeance. As I learned later, she quickly filed a complaint with a faculty member, then went on to coordinate an attack on me and Professor Jaquette with her sister, who sent the threatening email, while Ms. Mohomed posted her inaccurate and inflammatory account on Facebook. Her latest salvo in this vendetta is to accuse me, along with Professor Jaquette with Professor Derek Shearer, of racism and Islamophobia.
Words count! And these are highly incendiary words––issued without any basis or merit; an utterly undeserved attack that potentially could bring harm to myself and two distinguished professors. Ms. Mohomed now demands apologies from all and that the college reprimand these esteemed academics––and urges them to assist her in destroying my reputation.
Let us pause here and reflect on the lessons of history: there is no appeasing a bully. They are emboldened by civility. On a personal note, I find this attack particularly painful, albeit rich in irony, having been raised in the cradle of the the civil rights movement by parents who were on the front lines.
Moreover, from my first news story in 1979 on the United Mine Workers to my last in the New York Times on U.S.-Cuban immigration, I have consistently tackled racism––be it the Ku Klux Klan or unfair immigration laws.
Indeed, next month I have been asked to speak on a national television news program about my writings on the issue of race in Cuba,
a concern that I have addressed for more than two decades.
This unfortunate incident tells me that Occidental does not need more “diversity training” but rather basic instruction on the U.S. Constitution,
the First Amendment, the limits of free speech and perhaps, more importantly, what constitutes libel, slander and defamation.
This may be an excellent time for Occidental College to make required reading of Phillip Roth’s “The Human Stain” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Both books chronicle the devastating consequences and tragedy of fabricated allegations of racism.
Ann Louise Bardach
This is an edited version of a letter that Professor Emeritus Jane Jaquette sent toHanan Mohamed on March 30.
Dear Occidental Community,
I have not until now been in touch concerning Ms. Mohamed’s account, published in the Occidental Weekly on March 25, of an incident at which I was present. On calm reflection, I believe I owe Ms. Mohamed and the Occidental community my perspective on these events and the issues they raise.
We at Oxy have for some years been building a more diverse, pluralist and inclusionary community where people of various ethnic backgrounds, faith traditions, socioeconomic statuses, abilities, political perspectives, sexual preferences and identities can all gain from positive interaction with others of different backgrounds in the common pursuit of education and insight. This has required developing enhanced awareness of and sensitivity to the differing premises, perceptions and vulnerabilities that we all bring to the community, and to be committed to respectful exchange with a variety of people. This does not happen easily or automatically. Establishing an environment where genuine and sometimes difficult dialogues can occur often requires sensitizing ourselves to unconscious prejudices and prejudgments, assumptions and practices.
I have done my share of this kind of consciousness-raising, especially about gender stereotyping. I therefore respected the initial way Ms. Mohamed disciplined Ann Bardach, a distinguished visiting journalist, by her one-word response, “Chicago,” when Ms. Bardach asked her where she was from. I thought Ms. Mohamed’s comment that “you should never make assumptions about people you do not know,” when Ms. Bardach said she thought Ms. Mohamed might be from someplace “exotic,” was apt and appropriate. Ms. Bardach then said something like “It is better to be from Chicago than to be fleeing from the Boko Haram,” not (as no one would say) “You are from Boko Haram.”
Although I do not myself agree that it is “entirely offensive and never appropriate to ask strangers to share their identity with you,” as Ms. Mohamed states in the account she submitted to Occidental Weekly, I respect her right to privacy and unwillingness to engage with Ms. Bardach. As Ms. Mohamed clearly understood, I attempted to signal to both individuals that the incipient tension should be avoided by noting that “I am also from Chicago, which is exotic.”
I did not intervene further in the interchange because I thought Ms. Mohamed had stood her ground. She interpreted this silence to be a form of collusion. That was not the case, and in fact I immediately told Ms. Bardach about why what she said would be considered offensive. (I reported to Prof. Lan Chu that afternoon my initial respect for Ms. Mohamed’s response to Ms. Bardach and my discussion with her, and I understand Prof. Chu shared this information with her at that time.)
I see no basis in the interchange I witnessed, however, to accuse Ms. Bardach of “harassing” Mr. Mohamed or of “blatant racism.” The accusation of “Islamophobia” is reckless and inflammatory. Ms. Mohamed’s report to faculty members that Ms. Bardach had called her a member of Boko Haram is patently false, but she has repeated this charge on the Internet and in the Occidental Weekly. Ms. Mohamed’s attacks on me and on Professor Shearer (in his case simply for inviting Ms. Bardach to speak on campus) are based on the kinds of unwarranted assumptions she rightly asserted should not be made about people you do not know. The extraordinary and dangerous letter her sister sent to Ms. Bardach, in consultation with her, threatening vengeful actions against Ms. Bardach and attacking her with vile and deeply hostile language, greatly disturbs me.
At this point, my main concern is to ask what we as members of the Occidental community can learn from this episode and its aftermath. The key point seems to me that we ought to be focused on how to make the campus a welcoming place for all, especially the diverse students we invite to join our community. Civil discussion about how we can better accomplish this would be valuable, I think.
But Ms. Mohamed’s gratuitous attempts to damage individuals who have done a great deal to protect civil and human rights and diversity on campus and beyond, and her sister’s vicious letter to Ms. Bardach, violate the norms of civil discourse. They threaten rather than support Oxy’s efforts to build a campus that is safe and that encourages a climate of respect, integrity and dialogue, among all of us within the College community and with outside experts who are invited to share their knowledge and perspectives. The kind of civil discourse that Ms. Mohamed and I both advocate require all of us to consider what we say and how we say it.
Jane S. Jaquette